A village in central Italy is demanding that the Metropolitan Museum of Art return an Etruscan chariot more than a century after it was allegedly smuggled out of the country, according to a new book published in Italy.
In ``La Biga Rapita,'' or ``The Stolen Chariot,'' Italian reporter Mario La Ferla writes that financier John Pierpont Morgan had the 2,600-year-old chariot illegally transported from Italy to France, where it was kept in a basement of the Credit Lyonnais bank. The artifact was then shipped to the U.S., where it became the Metropolitan Museum's property in 1903, the year before Morgan became president of the Met, the book says.
The Etruscan chariot is billed by the Metropolitan as a centerpiece of its new Greek and Roman Galleries, which are scheduled to be inaugurated on April 20.
The accusations come a year after the museum agreed, following talks with the Italian government, to return a 2,500- year-old vase as well as 20 other disputed items. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in September returned 13 classical works to Italy. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California is in negotiations over disputed Italian artifacts.
According to La Ferla's account, in 1902, a local farmer in the town of Monteleone di Spoleto, near Perugia in Umbria, found the chariot buried on his land. He sold it for 950 Italian lire (64 U.S. cents in today's money), enough to buy tiles for his roof.
The chariot was stored in Rome, where, according to the book, J.P. Morgan acquired it and transported it to the U.S. In 1903 it became the property of the Met, and a year later the banker became president of the museum, a position he held until his death in 1913.
The chariot's expatriation drew protests at the time from members of the Italian parliament, who saw it as a violation of Italian law, according to La Ferla's book.
Tito Mazzetta, a lawyer with the Atlanta firm Lipshutz, Greenblatt & King whose mother was born in Monteleone, is representing the village, the book says. Mazzetta said in a telephone interview that he is working on the case on a pro bono basis, hasn't filed a lawsuit and has yet to get the backing of the Italian government. The town of Monteleone or the region of Umbria might take legal action alone, he said.
Mazzetta said that although after 100 years the statute of limitations has expired, ``we are strong on moral and principle grounds,'' as, he said, the chariot was smuggled out and Italy was deprived of a part of its cultural heritage.
Metropolitan Museum Director Philippe de Montebello wasn't available for comment. Museum spokesman Harold Holzer said there are no legal grounds for returning the chariot. He said it was purchased from a dealer more than a century ago.
``You can't reverse world history and trade,'' he said in a telephone interview.